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Saturday, 9 March, 2002, 13:18 GMT
Undercover in Zimbabwe
Matabeleland warriors
Matabeleland has witnessed some of the worst crimes of the Mugabe era

If you didn't know what had happened there, you'd believe it to be the most beautiful place in all of Africa.

But in Matabeleland even a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I am not at all a superstitious person, but I have always found places where terrible things have happened, seriously unsettling.

And if you have read the tour guide's brief history of Matabeleland you learn enough to feel, well, at the least unsettled.

Map of Matabeleland
I was carrying a guide book. I was in Matabeleland as a tourist. I wore a South African rugby jersey, a pair of bush shorts, a baseball cap and carried my wildlife books in a rucksack.

I looked like one of those white Johannesburgers who raves about having a mystical attachment to the bush, but who never ever succeeds in looking anything other than a large, white man in Africa.

The disguise fooled the officials at passport control, though there was a nervous moment when I was asked exactly what kind of work I did.

Close encounters with rhino

You may find this hard to believe, but lying does not automatically come easy to a journalist.

I had to think quickly, and sought refuge in my favourite hobby.

"I am a fisheries expert," I said.

"What does that mean?" said the official.

"It means I try to stop foreigners stealing my country's fish," I replied.


In a country in the grip of state paranoia, a tourist with a camera and a notebook tends to stand out

At this the official burst out laughing, stamped my passport and bid me on my way.

The difficult thing about being a tourist who has a lot of journalistic work to do is that you do have to go through the motions of being a tourist.

In a country in the grip of state paranoia, full of spies and government lickspittles a tourist with a camera and a notebook tends to stand out.

So every day I and my colleagues did something touristy.

One morning the tour guide suggested we go and view some rhino in a game park.

We headed out in the warm, early sun, the glorious silence of the bush punctuated by the endless chatter of two elderly Italian ladies seated in front.

I have a feeling they were the only genuine tourists in Zimbabwe.

We quickly came across some rhino munching happily in the thorn bush.

I was quite happy to observe this from the Landrover - the Italians wanted to get up close and the guide reluctantly agreed to lead them into the bush.

I was shamed into following.

The problem was that the Italian ladies would not stop chattering. The guide pleaded and for a few minutes the torrent subsided.

But then it resumed, and as it did the rhino caught our scent on the wind. There was a fierce snorting from the other side of the bush, a loud rumble and then the sound of huge animals galloping - away from us.

I pictured the headline: "BBC undercover man gored by rhino."

And then the thought of leaving hospital only to enter the tender care of Mr Mugabe's security police.

Past atrocities

Most of my time in Matabeleland was spent travelling, for I had come to Matabeleland to investigate the worst crimes of the Robert Mugabe era - atrocities committed nearly 20 years ago when Britain and the rest of western countries believed he was a good thing for his nation, or at least if they thought otherwise they were diplomatic enough to keep any doubts to themselves.

President Robert Mugabe
People in Matabeleland still fear what Mugabe's men will do next
In January 1983 Robert Mugabe sent the North Korean trained Fifth Brigade of his national army into Zimbabwe.

When they were withdrawn nearly two years later between 10,000 to 20,000 people were dead and an entire population traumatised.

It was a campaign of rape, torture and mass killing - Mugabe called his men the Gukuruhundi: the storm that sweeps away the chaff.

In Bulawayo - the main town of Matabeleland - the memories of that terrible period are undimmed.

And there is fear about what Mugabe's men may do next.

One morning as I was playing the tourist in the city centre, I encountered a large group of young men carrying posters of Mugabe.

I smiled at them but they glowered back.

"Go away white man," said another.

Speaking out

I was on my way to the Roman Catholic cathedral to meet one of the bravest men in Africa.

My secretary was worried that I might endanger myself, but I have to speak out. How can you not speak out?

Archbishop Pius Ncube

Archbishop Pius Ncube has been campaigning on behalf of victims of the Fifth Brigade for years, and he is hated by Robert Mugabe.

I asked him if he was worried about doing an interview.

"My secretary was worried that I might endanger myself, but I have to speak out. How can you not speak out?" he said.

I have returned safely from Zimbabwe.

But Bishop Ncube is still there, still speaking out, still being threatened.

Whenever you are tempted to despair of Africa and its seemingly unending miseries, think of the bishop with no other weapon but his courage.

Think of him and be comforted.


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See also:

08 Jan 02 | Africa
10 Jan 02 | Africa
02 Jul 00 | Africa
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